American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
The "chitchat" is sparse as Zoey Brooks Nelson and her father, Ron, work through a line of cows that had left the milking parlor moments before. Wearing an arm-length glove, Ron reports his findings. Wearing a baseball cap stitched with "Brooks Farms, Est. 1855," Zoey scans a smartphone, makes notes and administers injections. "Pregnant," Ron says. "She's a health-check, 46 days," Zoey responds. "This cow has a cystic right ovary," he says. "This cow needs a career change," she says.
"I do not know of another 27-year-old who has amassed the resume of accomplishments that Zoey has," says Ron of his daughter, the chief operating officer of this Waupaca, Wisconsin, dairy. The business is building toward 700 milking cows. "She went from being an elite athlete in basketball and soccer, a valedictorian of her high school class, to an honors graduate of the University of Wisconsin with a degree in animal sciences."
Zoey's goal has been to lead the farm into its sixth generation, this one "fueled by female power."
Zoey directs Brooks Farms' herd health, calf health, human resources and office. As COO, she has written standard operating procedures for the farm, is creating benchmarking metrics and is penning performance evaluations. She intends to be successful in a state losing upwards of two dairies per day.
And, she intends to be a role model. "We have people driving in every day. Whether [it's] our nutritionist, our agronomist, sales representatives, they are all female," Zoey says. "It is important for young girls to see female figures in the industry."
She served as Wisconsin's 67th Alice in Dairyland for 2014-2015. Throughout the yearlong reign, she made 400 appearances promoting Wisconsin agriculture. She still works today with local high schools and technical colleges, as well as the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in creating professional curricula.
She has teamed with Waupaca High School's "Waupaca Works" work experience program, in which she has mentored four students who begin their work experience by managing the calf facility and are encouraged to explore other facets of the farm. One student has pursued additional education in agriculture.
Brooks Farms is 1,700 acres and headquartered south and west of Green Bay. It was homesteaded in 1855 by Luther West, three "greats" ago to Zoey. Ron Brooks has four daughters. "No men in this family," Zoey says. The operation produces its own feed and markets corn and wheat. A herd of 700 milking cows will match the productivity of the land. "We were land heavy and cow short," Zoey says. "The goal is sustainability and structuring our business for the future." By increasing cow numbers, Brooks Farms reduced its use of commercial fertilizers and will meet its demand for forages.
Zoey has a business motivation that goes directly to Brooks Farms' motto: Leave a Legacy, Not a Liability. "That means producing more and using less," she says. "At this herd size, we will be sustainably balanced with our land base."
Zoey cut her management teeth on a new calf barn in 2015. She planned, managed construction and moved calves into a facility equipped with robotic feeders. "This is where our herd starts," she says. "If we grow healthy calves, we'll have healthy cows." The calves are divided into four large pens where they have space to romp -- locomotion is important to muscle development -- and are free to socialize, important to the day they join the milking herd. Dairy development has undergone remarkable improvement. Average daily gain from 10 liters of milk per day per 100-pound calf went from 1 pound per day to 2 1/2 pounds per day. The milk comes from the hospital pen and is product that would be disposed of otherwise.
"Perhaps the most impressive fact about the calf project was that she was able to not only develop and learn how to accomplish this in a robotic facility, but now she has trained her staff to achieve these same results," Ron says.
Zoey is focused now on maximizing the capabilities of the farm's Double-16 Germania Herringbone milking parlor. It has fallen short of its benchmarks. "We decreased our labor needs but weren't able to get the parlor throughput we needed," Zoey says. With assistance from the farm's dairy technical services specialist, she revamped the farm's milking practices. Milk letdown, parlor flow and employee motivation all improved. Labor was of particular focus.
"I restructured job duties to allow two milkers in the parlor for the majority of a shift, eliminating the need for a third person," Zoey says. The result is a dramatic uptick in production. "We have taken an hour off milking time, gained 3 pounds of milk per cow and have eliminated bimodal flow."
The win motivates Zoey. "I know I'm building toward a legacy that makes a difference," she says. And, it builds confidence in Ron. "I am entirely confident," Ron says, "in Zoey's abilities that we will be hitting and exceeding our performance benchmarks just as she has done in every other aspect of her brilliant, young career."